Searching for Aliens in the Town With No WiFi

I posed with a smaller version of the telescope in the parking lot of the Green Bank Observatory. Elizabeth Cohen

Wondering what "Atlanta to Appalachia" is all about? It's part of an occasional series about life in the wilds of West Virginia through the eyes of a couple who never dreamed they'd love it there. Read previous installments here.

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The search for aliens starts in the middle of nowhere. In West Virginia.

It's tough to locate the "middle of nowhere" in a state as sparse as West Virginia, but it's possible. Wind your way through the serpentine mountains of Appalachia — past the world's largest tea kettle and a life-sized replica of Noah's Ark, past the deserted coal mining towns of Buckhannon and Mill Creek, past America's smallest post office, which just so happens to share a parking lot with America's smallest church.

Go past all of that and you're still not where this story begins.

But you're close.

God's Ark of Safety is a Christian ministry that is building a 450-foot recreation of Noah's Ark on the side of the highway
God's Ark of Safety is a Christian ministry that's building a 450-foot recreation of Noah's Ark on the side of the highway. Benyamin Cohen

In a valley between the Monongahela National Forest and the Allegheny Mountains lies the small town of Green Bank, West Virginia — population 143. I can pretty much guarantee that the town of Green Bank is less inhabited than wherever you are right now. The town's most famous export was Bruce Bosley, a native son who went on to become a four-time All-Pro with the San Francisco 49ers. He was a star running back at Green Bank High School, which has since been closed and demolished. But what's still standing, at 485 feet tall, is something extraordinary: the Green Bank Telescope and Observatory.

What makes the town unique is that it's in the heart of the United States National Radio Quiet Zone. It sounds like the fevered dream of a librarian at the Smithsonian, but it's real. The federal government doesn't allow any radio transmissions within 20 miles. Police monitor the area for microwave ovens, Bluetooth signals and WiFi routers. Try to make a phone call, as I do while stepping out of the car, and you quickly realize there's no cell service. Can you hear me now? No? Oh, you must be in Green Bank.

Even cordless phones are taboo here. It's like stepping back in time, to an era before Candy Crush and Uber and Alyssa Milano's Twitter feed.

Inside the observatory, on this Friday afternoon, I meet an elementary school teacher who tells me that kids in Green Bank enjoy a simpler life, one filled less with Netflix queues and more with outdoor activities. (Like figuring out which corner of town might have a working cell signal.) Norman Rockwell would feel right at home here.

Wireless communications signals are banned to prevent transmissions interfering with the radio telescopes in the area.
Wireless communications signals are banned to prevent transmissions interfering with the radio telescopes in the area. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

For most, these restrictions are a nuisance. Trying to share a photo of Green Bank to your Instagram feed is a fool's errand. But a few dozen people have moved to Green Bank specifically because of the silence — and the promise of a life free of iPhones. They suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, a disease in which those frequencies can trigger symptoms like nausea, dizziness, rashes, irregular heartbeat and chest pains. You know the type, the people who say using a cellphone gives them a headache, or that standing next to a microwave causes cancer. They are the electrosensitive. Some are merely refugees from the modern world, looking for serenity in a town that's devoid of all things Kardashian.

The peace and solitude are what makes this valley in central West Virginia the optimal spot to set up a telescope to search for aliens. Scientists looking to hear radio frequencies from outer space — especially those coming from beyond our galaxy — need perfect silence to do their listening. An alien spaceship may be trying to communicate with us, but it'll be hard to pick up what the extraterrestrials are saying if invisible sound waves from cell towers and the pop-pop-pop of Orville Redenbacher's microwave popcorn gets in the way. The Radio Quiet Zone allows for the detection of faint radio frequency signals that man-made signals might otherwise mask. And that's how the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope ended up here — in the middle of nowhere.

The first thing you need to know about the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope is that it's massive. Imagine the biggest telescope you can and then double the size. No, triple it. The paraboloid is so big it takes up more than two acres in an empty field. It weighs 16 million pounds and is about 60% taller than the Statue of Liberty. You can see it for miles. The locals refer to the GBT by its other acronym, the "Great Big Thing."

Like many points of interest in West Virginia, it's named after the senator who served this state for more than half a century. Indeed, at the time of his death, he was the longest-serving member in the history of the United States Congress. He was a controversial figure, but the state benefitted immensely from the pork he brought home. Byrd parlayed his senior role in the Senate to push for funding of the telescope, which he received in the early 1990s. It took a decade to construct and finally opened for scientific exploration in 2001. A year later, astronomers had already discovered three new neutron stars.

So it's no wonder that when a team of scientists hatched an audacious plan to listen for radio signals from aliens, they descended on Green Bank, West Virginia.

E.T. phone home

The telescope sits in the heart of the U.S. National Radio Quiet Zone, a unique area located in the town of Green Bank, West Virginia.
The telescope sits in the U.S. National Radio Quiet Zone, a unique area located in the town of Green Bank, West Virginia. NRAO/AUI/Wikimedia

This particular search for aliens, seeking evidence of intelligent life beyond our human race, may be happening in a field in West Virginia, but the mission's pedigree is far from backwater. It's being orchestrated by Nobel Prize winners and some of the smartest minds in Silicon Valley, with everyone from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to the late physicist Stephen Hawking behind it. (Indeed, this was one of the physicist's final projects before he passed away in 2018.)

With pomp and circumstance, the project was announced on July 20, 2015, the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The event was held at London's Royal Society, the oldest national scientific institution in the world. Sir Isaac Newton was an early member, and it's where, in 1919, Albert Einstein revealed he had proven his theory of relativity. This was the backdrop for a historic declaration in the summer of 2015. "In an infinite universe, there must be other life," Hawking said at the public launch. "There is no bigger question. It is time to commit to finding the answer."

Breakthrough Listen

The mission was christened Breakthrough Listen, and its sole purpose would be to search for intelligent communications from outside our solar system. It would be paid for by an unlikely source: an Israeli-Russian billionaire. Yuri Milner, a venture capitalist and himself a physicist, has been called one of the world's greatest leaders by Fortune magazine, and Time named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He's an investor in Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Airbnb and Spotify. And he's behind the world's largest scientific awards, known as the Breakthrough Prize, for which each winner receives $3 million in prize money. Milner – who was named after Yuri Gagarin, the first human to travel into outer space – launched the Breakthrough Listen initiative with a personal gift of $100 million.

yuri milner project breakthrough
Yuri Milner and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking explained the $100 million global initiative to reinvigorate the search for life in the universe at The Royal Society in London in 2015. Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

By 2017, just two years after Breakthrough Listen launched, the project had already logged its first success. The astronomers used the massive telescope in West Virginia to examine an odd, oblong-shaped mystery item floating through space. Called Oumuamua, it's believed to be the first interstellar object detected passing through our solar system. In 2019, they spotted a second.

So far, they have collected one petabyte of data, which may sound like a lot — and it is. It's about a million gigabytes of information. They have observed more than 1,300 relatively nearby stars over the course of just a few years, listening for any signs of radio waves that would signal the presence of technologically advanced aliens. This only amounts to a tiny sliver of what could be studied. If you compare the volume of space we're able to search for signs of advanced technology to the volume of the Earth's oceans, then "so far since 1960, we've searched about one hot tub's worth of the ocean," says Jill Tarter, a longtime alien researcher.

In total, Breakthrough Listen is expected to survey 1 million stars and 100 nearby galaxies for techno-signatures that presumably only an advanced society could send into space. The entire project will last a decade, unless Milner decides to toss in more of his vast fortune. To keep the fast pace of discovery moving, the group publicly releases everything it finds. In June 2019, it dropped the largest data dump of its kind, allowing scientists from across the globe to parse the findings.

All because of a massive telescope in a field in the middle of nowhere in West Virginia. Free of cellphones and microwaves, the telescope is pointed toward the sky in search of something greater.

What makes space glamorous, after all, is not the mere act of getting to where no one has gone before, but the imagination, ingenuity, and hubris required to do it. As astronomer Carl Sagan famously said, "In the deepest sense, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for ourselves."